In the fall of 1976 I was fresh out of journalism school and desperate to work for a newspaper. So were a lot of other people. The Watergate scandal had spawned an enormous interest in the newspaper business, and everyone, it seemed, wanted to be the next Woodward or Bernstein. I sent letters and resumes to dozens of newspapers but got only one reply: The Catholic Standard and Times had an opening on its editorial staff.
I arrived for my interview wearing a corduroy jacket and plaid bell bottoms — my only “business suit.” I had a nice chat with the editor, Msgr. John P. Foley, but it became clear after about 10 minutes that I wasn’t really qualified for the job. Sure enough, a month later, Msgr. Foley called to tell me he had hired someone else for the editorial position.
But, he quickly added, “We do have an opening in our advertising sales department. If you are interested, I think we can give you some opportunities to write as well.”
I really have no idea why Msgr. Foley wanted to hire me — I had zero advertising sales experience. Maybe it was the plaid pants? But I had been looking for a job for six months, so I jumped at the chance and landed in the newspaper business.
Msgr. Foley made good on his promise. While I was a terrible ad salesman, I soon was writing restaurant reviews and covering high school football games. Six months later, I was named sports editor and found myself writing a column. At small newspapers, out of necessity, you tend to get involved in the entire operation, and before long I learned how to lay out pages and prepare the newspaper for production and printing.
Of course, writing and printing are just the nuts and bolts of the newspaper business. Msgr. Foley taught me much more. He said there are two fundamental rules when it comes to reporting the news: “Get it first. But get it right.” In other words, it’s great to be first with the news, but it’s more important to be accurate.
Writing a column for any newspaper is a privilege — you get to share your opinions and you don’t have to be objective. But, as Msgr. Foley told me, “You should be fair.” My sports column for The Standard reached nearly 90,000 weekly readers — quite a privilege … and quite a responsibility.
Msgr. Foley often reminded me about those rules of journalism, but he also gave me an enormous amount of editorial freedom. When Roman Catholic’s legendary high school basketball coach Speedy Morris was fired, I wrote a column that some Church officials viewed as sympathetic toward Speedy. A number of those officials complained to Msgr. Foley about “that crazy column” in The Standard, and they wondered how someone who worked for the Church (me) could openly support Speedy. I never asked Msgr. Foley what he thought of the Speedy Morris issue, but he let me write it the way I saw it, and for that I’m grateful.
The world of journalism has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Printed newspapers are melting faster than ice cream in August and the Internet carries the news faster and farther than anyone ever imagined. Bloggers are everywhere, offering their view of the news of the day, often without the benefit of accuracy. Maybe they should keep in mind the rules that Msgr. Foley taught a young reporter more than 30 years ago:
Get it first.
But get it right.
And be fair.